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Ahab Unbound:
Melville and the Materialist Turn

For years critics have viewed Melville’s Captain Ahab as the paradigm of a strong agent: “the supreme individualist of the nineteenth century” whose passions “fuse other men into instruments for his own egocentric will.” The story generally goes something like this: Ahab abuses his power by dragging his crew along on his obsessive quest after an infamous white whale. Then, in the end, everybody drowns. In Eric Wilson's concise configuration, Ahab conscripts his entire world “into his monomaniacal projects and ends by killing his crew, save one.” Rethinking Ahab rejects this dominant reading, which simply doesn’t hold against the text of Moby-Dick. We challenge a long tradition of work that figures Ahab as a kind of dictator, or what Donald Pease aptly describes as a “Cold War Frame.” And in its place we reframe Ahab in terms of a series of related “materialist” topics: atomism, vitalism, materialist psychology, disability studies, and  the environmental humanities.


We might mark the advent of a “materialist turn” in Melville Studies with Samuel Otter’s Melville’s Anatomies (1999) and the attention it cast on Melville’s “corporeal obsessions” and “materialist analyses.” But in recent years, materialist criticism on Melville has flourished in a number of directions, as new titles by our contributors indicate. It is telling, we think, that readers can find at least four essays on “materialism” in last year’s The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville (2014) alone. And Leviathan is preparing a special issue on “Melville and Material.”

Here we find a problem. Discussions of “non-human,” “inhuman,” “and “planetary” turns have created the vague but palpable sense that “matter” deserves recognition. But these conversations have very different goals and are based in widely-divergent critical traditions. So while our contributors will offer a range of dynamic new readings of Melville, Rethinking Ahab uses Ahab as a focal point to think rigorously about how their approaches converge—and stand at potentially productive cross-purposes. Put simply, our first goal is to “Rethink Ahab,” or to unsettle what is arguably the only critical consensus about Moby-Dick: the myth of his strong, controlling, and even tyrannical will.  But our second goal is broader and arguably more important: to collect and give shape to the multitude of ways that "materialism" is being used to produce criticism in our current moment.


We will do this by asking each of our contributors to respond to a series of questions:


  1. Do these readings constitute something like a materialist turn? If so: how might we define “materialism"? And why not a “nonhuman,” “inhuman,” or “planetary” turn?

  2. Does this work actually do something new? What do we make of the fact that work on Melville and science was a central part of Melville studies until 1951, or the advent of the “Cold War Frame”? And, of course: what exactly is new about the “new materialism”?

  3. The central criticism of materialist approaches is that they decenter “agency” in ways that lead to quietism. How does your work navigate this charge?

  4. Do you describe a relationship between Melville’s materialism and aesthetic form?


Our contributors have produced transformative work on both materialism and the history of criticism. But here we have intentionally juxtaposed work by scholars from American Studies, English, Law, and Religious Studies. We expect that their varied approaches and topics will be helpful to scholars whose interests reach beyond Melville, the history of science, and science studies—and into the digital humanities, the environmental humanities, critical race studies, disability studies, and queer theory.

Our table of contents can be viewed here.

Because our goal is to produce a productive exchange, Rethinking Ahab is being developed as a series of roundtables at the Modern Language Association and C19: The Society for Nineteenth Century Americanists:


MLA Roundtable: Rethinking Ahab

January 8, 8:30-9:45 a.m. Room 18B, Austin Convention Center

Jonathan Schroeder, University of Chicago (chair)

Branka Arsić Columbia University

Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University

Donald Pease, Dartmouth College

Geoffrey Sanborn, Amherst College

Michael Snediker, University of Houston

Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest University (respondent)

Organized with Jonathan Schroeder


C19 Roundtable: Melville and the Materialist Turn 

March 20, 10:00-11:45 a.m. Assembly Room, Nittany Lion 

Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University (in absentia)

Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest University

Paul Gilmore, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Timothy Marr, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

John Modern, Franklin & Marshall College

Mark Noble, Georgia State University

Jonathan Schroeder (chair)

Caleb Smith, Yale University (moderator)

Organized with Jonathan Schroeder


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